“Red Oaks” is not a pastiche of better ’80s comedies. It’s a great ’80s comedy all its own, telling a relatable story and one helluva funny one at that. Following young David (Craig Roberts) as he works as a tennis pro for a country club during the summer after his freshman year in college, the new Amazon comedy gives off a strong “Caddyshack” vibe early on before proving it’s so much more than illegal youthful antics and training for the big (tennis) match. (Though those are certainly a part of it.)
Created by “Magic Mike XXL” director Gregory Jacobs — who spent a long time as Steven Soderbergh’s first assistant director — and horror writer Joe Gangemi, the heartwarming, thought-provoking nine-episode season may not seem like a likely result of the duo’s talents. Yet “Red Oaks” has enough passion and confidence behind it to make you think these two have been doing nothing but writing television since the time in which this story is told. Below, Jacobs and Gangemi discuss what the ’80s means to them, why the era holds up so well creatively, what they liked about Amazon’s pilot process and Soderbergh’s influence on the series.
The ’80s really still holds a lot of allure for people, and not just those who lived through it. Why do you think this time period holds up so well in entertainment?
Joe Gangemi: I think it’s one of the last moments of innocence before technology and before everyone had cell phones and the internet. It was the last moment in time where people interacted the way that was missed. That’s why it was fun to set stories there and not have to be beholden to that world of mobile phones. Sometimes it would have been handy, when we were writing, to have people whip out a mobile phone, but I think that’s partly why I remember that era fondly.
It seems like it’s easier to get people to interact face-to-face, and that creates more of a dramatic presentation. This is something that we see really grabbing people and it seems to work very, very well. Is there anything more you could say about setting this in the ’80s?
Gregory Jacobs: It was kind of when we came of age, so for us, it was the most relatable in that way. Also, to just reiterate what Joe was saying, I think there was a charm and an innocence to that era, sort of pre-hyper technology — that we live in now. That was interesting for us. In addition to the music and the clothes, without wanting to do something that was a pastiche, there were a lot of interesting things going on in the world, but also great innocence as well.
JG: It was a little less cynical age.
That definitely comes across in the show. You seem to avoid a lot of the stereotypes that fill ’80s genre movies where the enemies are just dirtbags. They’re more three-dimensional here. Even Paul Reiser’s character, who you know is a jerk, seems to have a deeper level to him. How did you form your characters and what was the design of behind that dynamic?
JG: That was definitely by design. We set ourselves a challenge — [when] we were planning the show and when we were working with our writing staff — that we never wanted a character to have one dimension, and if it started to feel like they were becoming a trope, we would stop and dedicate a lot of discussion to how we could add an unexpected angle or layer to them that would keep them more interesting over five hours. When you’re doing a 90-minute movie, you don’t necessarily have the time to delve too deeply into such a big cast equally, but we had five hours to fill, and that gave us the opportunity to say, “Okay, there’s not going to be a ‘Judge Smails’ character like in ‘Caddyshack’ that just hits one note. Let’s take that character and see what we can do that’s unexpected with them and make you see if the guy can be antagonist one minute, but also sympathetic in the next.” That’s just how we’ve always worked as writers: We start from character rather than from situation. That’s just our impulse and our instinct.
There’s also a strong emphasis on relationships in this show, and not just the casual hookups you see in a lot of youth-focused TV shows and movies. Obviously the father’s heart attack is a huge part of how this series is set, but is this an examination of a time that defines us? Why bring that level of drama into a comedy?
GJ: That’s something that was important to us. We talk a lot about that; the idea that yes, it’s a comedy, but we wanted to have this drama that flows through in the interactions and relationships. That was something that we felt would bring another layer to it. If there are dramatic through-lines that you could leave throughout the comedy, it just seemed like it would be more interesting.
JG: You would also invest a little more in the characters, hopefully. We knew right from the outset that we weren’t writing a network sitcom. It’s not punchline-driven. It doesn’t have that sort of “rat-a-tat-tat” rhythm that those shows have. Some of them are great. “Modern Family” does that brilliantly, but we aren’t doing that kind of show, so we didn’t have to build our scenes around punchlines. We built the scenes around the characters and relationships and the situations let the comedy evolve naturally from that. Sometimes we had scenes that didn’t want to be funny and so we let them and we have that support from Amazon to allow a scene to play out as dramatic if that’s what was true to the characters in that particular moment.
Do you think that kind of tempo or rhythm is more conducive to a distributor that would release the full season all at once, so people can watch however they want? Or do you think that could fit just about anywhere?
GJ: I don’t know if the binge-watching dictates the rhythm per say, I just know that for us, this was something that we were interested in; this kind of comedy with more situational humor. I guess it’s a dramedy.
JG: Where the rhythm is affected is that you don’t have a commercial break, you don’t have to build in special cliffhangers that then can be remembered a week later. Your episodes can flow one into the other more. Sitcom characters tend to not evolve. They tend to reboot every episode and end up at the same place they’ve started, and that’s why the comedy can go on for a decade with no special change. But Amazon encouraged us to go in the opposite direction and let our characters all change, let it all play out. It’s a five-hour story so that’s one big difference that I’m not sure you could do on a commercial broadcast network.
Was that a discussion that you had with Amazon before you even agreed to do the pilot with them? Or is that something that developed after you got picked up?
GJ: We knew that that was part of the allure of us deciding to do it at Amazon; this idea of bingeing seemed intriguing and the idea to let things play as a five-hour movie. We knew what the template was. We could design for that, and that was interesting for us.
JG: We didn’t go out and pitch this. We wrote the first few episodes to really get the world and the tone to exactly what we wanted, and then that’s what was great. Amazon saw what we wanted to do and saw it very clearly on the page and we had support right from the get-go.
So what sort of feedback did you get during the pilot process? You said that you wrote a few of the episodes before that even became a thing to think about, so did it affect anything down the line; any arcs for future seasons or the end of the season?
GJ: It was all positive, and as Joe said, we had written a few of the episodes. For the most part, we stayed on course and certainly there were notes and things that when we went back to design the rest of the season, that we changed. I don’t think there was anything dramatic or radically different.
JG: And that’s not necessarily unique to Amazon. Any time you do a pilot, you see through the happy accidents of your casting. We have a great casting director, Carmen Cuba, but you find people who are just phenomenal and you say, “I want to see more of that person,” or “I’d really like to see this character cross paths with that character. We weren’t originally planning that, but they have chemistry off-screen.” That’s the way that the pilot process affected the shaping of the story, but I think that’s pretty common on a lot of shows. I don’t know if you meant feedback from customers. For me, the biggest thing from that was really encouraging: just to see people got the vibe of what we were trying to do and were in sync with us. That’s always really great. It fills your sails with wind from folks that you know are going to go on the journey with you.
Shifting back to the more creative side of the show, the casting of Jennifer Grey kind of implies an awareness of the culture being examined here, but the show itself is mostly free of ’80s-specific jokes and homages. How do you strike that balance?
GJ: The Jennifer Grey aspect of it was– Obviously, she was someone who was in an iconic ’80s movie, but that wasn’t really something that drove us to want to cast her. We’re just fans of hers. Just the idea of seeing her and Richard Kind as husband and wife was really appealing to us. She’s just a great actress and someone we want to be part of it. Her being a touchstone of something of that era was something that was sort of an added bonus. As far as striking the balance, we really tried with all the directors to not have the show be gimmick-laden with ’80s props or set dressing; to try to not have any visual punchlines. People aren’t hopping out of DeLoreans or carrying big brick phones or walking around with Rubik’s cubes. I think the idea was to visually be careful to not make it schtick-y in that way.
JG: Creatively, we just want you to become immersed, as a viewer, in this world, not outside of it. Anytime we used ’80s anything — but particularly props — it sort of breaks the fourth wall a little bit, and for me it kicks me out of the story. I’m reminded I’m watching a story and laughing at it, not with it. We wanted you to really be a part of this world and experience it as these characters are experiencing it. That’s why we avoided getting too “meta.”
I’m curious where exactly the basic idea came from. Where, in either of your minds or both of your minds, was it all of a sudden just like, “This is a show I really have to do.” Why this setting? Why this main character?
GJ: Joe and I are long-time friends, and we traded stories about various summer jobs we had, and at one point, we cobbled together these ideas and thought, “Hey, how about trying to do this as a little indie movie?” Steven Soderbergh was the one who actually suggested it as a TV series. He said, “You guys should really put this together and instead of an indie movie, I think it would be fun to follow these characters across a couple of seasons.” The idea of doing it as a TV show came from Steven, but the origin, I guess, came from Joe and I being pals and spending a lot of time together and regaling each other with various adventures from our early 20s. Then, obviously, fictionalizing it because it’s way more interesting than what we experienced. [laughs]
You’ve got a lot of experience working with independent films, and if that’s where it started in your head, what was the biggest change you had to make to make it fit into a TV series?
GJ: With a movie, you’re really trying to keep something within 120 pages; this sort of three act structure. What I think was fun for both of us, was that it enabled us to go deep with these characters. Knowing that, in a sense, we had a four-and-a-half or five-hour movie we could play with. It enabled us to take our ensemble and really stretch things out a little bit.
JG: I started as a novelist too, so it’s all very natural to me, it’s a much closer medium to novel-writing, doing long, episodic television where the digression is the charm of the medium. It’s not like a feature that’s ruthless, where it’s hard to tell an ensemble story. TV and novel writing are quite the opposite, the medium lives and breathes in its digression. That just felt really natural. When Steven said, “You should do a TV show,” that felt really freeing.
If you had an idea for a movie, in my mind, that would mean that you had an idea for some sort of ending. Do you still have that ending in mind somewhere? Is there a long-term plan for the arc of this, or is it just more freeing to know you have the time to come up with that?
JG: We talked about endings, but I think once we knew we were going the TV series route, what we have mapped out is where next season can go, where the following season can go. In theory, I don’t know that we have a definitive ending yet.
GJ: Usually this kind of story in a film hinges on one big decision; one big learning for your protagonist. We’re fortunate that we’re telling a story about this guy at a point in his life where it’s not just one decision, it’s a number of decisions that take place over a number of years before you really become the person you’re going to be. It’s almost a more natural fit for this kind of story than the artificial one of a feature film, where you have to boil it down into the “single most important summer of my life,” which I don’t think is true for anyone.